Sunday, July 31, 2011

Chinese Woodblock Prints

This afternoon we saw a remarkable exhibit of Chinese woodblock prints all dating to the past decade. I was especially impressed by this image of a family eating dinner, reflected in a spoon. I loved the detailed imagery of dishes and foods, and the suggestion of family life. My photo isn't good at all: the print is around 6 feet tall, so I took it from across the room.

We also heard a fascinating lecture about the meaning of the prints, especially about a conceptual artist, Xu Bing, who used to work in New York but is now in China.

The Ego Trip

Last night I saw the BBC film "The Trip." The title should really be "The Ego Trip" because it's all about two boring men who think they are celebrities. The actors are supposed to be famous -- they wish. Well, maybe they are famous somewhere, not here.

A lot of "The Trip" is improvised, with them congratulating themselves all over the north of England as they supposedly are dining in famous restaurants in order to write about the food. In fact, as Len pointed out, it's too chaotic to be fiction. Mocumentary is the best description I've seen for the genre.

The claim that the two egomaniacs are exploring something about fine restaurants is a sham. There's no way they could ever write about what they were eating because all the time they are tasting the food, they are competing to do impressions of truly famous film stars and also competing to quote famous poetry about the places they are traveling. They sit in front of painstakingly plated little morsels of fish, duck, pigeon, chocolate cake, or whatever that's just come out of the kitchen of whichever restaurant they are in.

There are lots of shots of the kitchen staff painstakingly sauteing and arranging the food which the two characters shovel into their mouths without seeming to notice it. Although they are supposedly in 5 different restaurants I suspect that all the shots were taken in only one kitchen. Repetitiveness is another annoying feature of "The Trip."

A few images of their posturing:

Fortunately the evening started better. We ate at Seva, which has been Ann Arbor's principal vegetarian restaurant for nearly 30 years. I think it's improved since I was last there -- a marvel for a local restaurant. Our 4 dinners were nicely plated but not to the extremes of the awful film:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's the carbon footprint of your dinner?

First, here's a graphic that's getting a lot of attention, just published by The Environmental Working Group, a Washington lobbying organization:

Full Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Common Proteins and Vegetables


Here's a graphic (thanks, Len!) showing some of the same foods with their carbon footprint for 1000 calories instead of for one kilo:

Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 1000 calories of Common Proteins and Vegetables

The first graph comes from the EWG's "Meat Eater's Guide," discussing the impact of meat eating on the environment. It illustrates the carbon footprint of common foods, measured in kilograms of carbon expended to produce a kilogram of edible food. I find the idea of comparing various foods by their carbon footprint be effective, but comparing the foods by weight seems misleading. Comparing a kilogram of tomatoes to a kilogram of edible beef seems rather naive: after all, the kilo of tomatoes supplies you with around 180 calories, while a kilo of steak is 2010 calories. Comparing these to cheese is even less helpful: a kilogram of cheddar has just over 4000 calories. To me, calorie content is a better measure of nutritional value than weight, and if you look at some of the foods from this point of view, the profile is very different, as you can see in the second graphic.

Comparing beef to lentils still gets the same result: the carbon footprint of beef is over 30 times as high as the carbon used to deliver a plate of lentils to a diner. However, in between, the differences don't come out so consistent -- cheese turns out to be a much more responsible carbon-conserving choice if you look at its calorie value.

Note: calorie values are based on the information in the USDA online calorie counter.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Appreciation of Food in Fiction

In the Guardian food blog:

Food writing, glorious food writing

The author, Sarah Crown, describes the use of food by a number of authors, many new to me. I loved this passage:
All books, in my opinion, benefit from a bit of food – and I've been a connoisseur since childhood. During my Blyton phase, it was the luxurious descriptions of midnight feasts, and the Famous Five's acquisition of "new rolls, anchovy paste, a big round jam tart in a cardboard box, oranges, lime-juice, a fat lettuce and some ham sandwiches" (Five Get Into Trouble, in case you're interested) that hooked me. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods I was enthralled by the descriptions of meat smoking, butter-churning and the putting away of provisions against the long, cold winter. My mouth still waters at the thought of the homemade ice cream with burnt toffee which Roald Dahl remembers eating at his grandmother's house in his childhood memoir, Boy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Lone Ranger and Tonto...

Sherman Alexie's story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a collection of brief glimpses of Indians (his term) living on and off the Spokane reservation. Their lives are tragic, but their view is often to see the humor in what they experience. "Laughter through tears" was a classic description of the works of Sholem Aleichem -- who wrote about Jews on the reservation. I mean in the shtetl. The similarity is odd.

Sometimes the humor is open, sometimes indirect. In one story, a character named James Many Horses is abandoned by his wife because he makes too many jokes about death; another story says "even the other Indians got tired of his joking." (p. 203)

Food and hunger are both repeating themes in Alexie's stories, among the many themes that make the work vivid and poignant. Also beer, vodka, whiskey, and (unexpectedly) Diet Pepsi. One character thinks that "one more beer could save the world. One more beer and every chair would be comfortable. One more beer and the light bulb in the bathroom would never burn out. ... " (p. 88)

A few examples of the foods Alexie mentions: macaroni with commodity cheese, fry bread (of which the best recipe was lost when the older generation died), cheap hamburgers, Green Giant mushrooms (in absence of magic mushrooms), and a creamsicle (one of many items from the 7-11). In the delivery room a new mother has just one question about her baby son: "Will he love to eat potatoes?" (p. 81) Another character says:
... eating potatoes every day of my life, I imagined the potatoes grew larger, filled my stomach, reversed the emptiness. My sisters saved up a few quarters and bought food coloring. For weeks we ate red potatoes, green potatoes, blue potatoes. ...[We told] stories about the food we wanted most. We imagined oranges, Pepsi-Cola, chocolate, deer jerky." (p. 151)
Some of the characters have diabetes, and must politely refuse candy that a policemen offers them. One junior high kid says to a bulimic girl in his school "Give me your lunch if you're just going to throw it up." But the girls "Grow skinny from self-pity." (p. 177) An empty refrigerator begins one story. The narrator of one story is locked in the 7-11 refrigerator by a robber, who "pulled the basketball shoes off my feet, and left me waiting for rescue between the expired milk and broken eggs." (p. 150)

Poverty, hunger, exclusion from education, and being able to see the mainstream without joining it might be common points between Sholem Aleichem's village and Sherman Alexie's reservation, but the real nexus is laugher through tears. And they all ate potatoes.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jason's Birthday Cake

Lemon with notes of ginger and strawberry candle holders...

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pop Food

In the 1960s, commercial images of food inspired the Pop Art movement to depict food in a completely different way from the artists that preceded them. Claes Oldenbourg was among the early pop artists, and he often made gigantic sculptures of food (like the spoon bridge with a cherry in Minneapolis). He also made soft sculpture or moulded sculpture of meat, pastry, sandwiches, and other foods, like the case of Danish Pastry above. When I first saw Pop Art I felt as if it had showed me a whole new way to see the things around me. I still find these representations of ordinary foods to open my eyes in a special way. The context of Oldenbourg's representations is defined not by painting or sculpting the surroundings (as earlier artists usually did) but by using the same type of case in which real food in a diner or restaurant would be displayed to someone about to eat. Playful! Artful!

Andy Warhol started as a commercial artist, and combined the Pop Art vision with the commercial vision, as in the hamburgers below, which are re-drawn from ads. Of course his soup cans are much more famous, and even one remove from the food: you only see the label, not the soup itself.

Pop Art really differs from what came before, in my opinion. Artists like Jan Steen, Velazquez, Manet, Bonnard, and many others painted food in a social context: people were cooking, about to eat, or otherwise to engage in cooking or taking a meal. Van Gogh's potato eaters and Picasso's frugal diners put dining in the context of poverty, perhaps making a political point about the subjects. Still-life painters (whether classic, cubist, or romantic) made studies of the shapes and colors of foods, fruits, serving dishes, and related objects, at times also referring to symbolism associated with the objects in their pictures. Pop Art referred to another visual dimension of modern life.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Two Sad Meals by Picasso

It's well known that in his early days in Paris Picasso was often hungry, maybe even offering paintings in exchange for something to eat. The first of these two works, "The Frugal Meal" is often reproduced; the second, "The Blindman's Meal," is less famous, I think. The people depicted during Picasso's blue period are often depressed looking, but these works seem even sadder. Both suggest the desperation of hunger and poverty.

I need to look more thoroughly for later Picasso paintings of people eating, perhaps even enjoying food. I would not expect to find a painting of food preparation, at least my current knowledge of Picasso's biography wouldn't lead me to expect such subjects. He did later paint still-life subjects, but that's more for the shape and color of fruit and other objects on a table, not really about eating them.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Velazquez paints food

We're home again from our long trip out west. And I'm again looking at the topic of how artists (maybe not many of them) have pursued the topic of food and cooking. It seems that one such painter was Velazquez (1599-1660). I am especially interested in the picture above, "Old woman cooking eggs," painted when Velazquez was very young. I have little information about what he was thinking or any meaning beyond a realistic depiction of a simple subject. The contemporary Dutch painters' still life works had a great deal of symbolism in them. Here? I don't know.

There are quite a few more, including this one:

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

George Lang 1924-2011

The New York Times today published the obituary of George Lang, a cookbook author and an impressario of restaurants, most famously the Cafe des Artistes in New York, and the post-communist reincarnation of the historic restaurant Gundel in Budapest. Lang was born on July 13, 1924, in Szekesfehervar, Hungary. He originally studied music, and intended to be a musician. His first deviation from his plan was to be in the resistance in World War II after escaping from a Nazi prison camp. As a Jew, he had little choice but resistance, but by joining the fascist Arrow Cross militia was able to assist other Jews in hiding. His parents died in Auschwitz.

Lang escaped to New York and resumed his intended career as a musician, but eventually discovered his talent for designing and running restaurants and also for writing cookbooks. The Cuisine of Hungary is one of my favorite ethnic cookbooks, which the obituary says was the first Hungarian cookbook in English.

According to the Times:
"Mr. Lang often enjoyed constructing fantasy meals, including his last. The ideal final meal, he told The Village Voice in 2007, would include some of the great dishes from his restaurant career but above all his Hungarian favorites: fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.

"'And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,' he said."

Friday, July 01, 2011

Picnic Game Day

Happy picnic day: don't forget to check Louise's blog for a complete list of 26 picnic foods in alphabetical order! My post,

A-Apricot Cobbler

has been up for around a week. There are 16 recipes for desserts and sweet baked goods, and a very interesting Portuguese dish that starts with "X" among the delicious foods for this virtual picnic.